Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Nancy Holt’s Sightlines

Nancy Holt, photo by Lee Deffebach.


Each time we focus on a point in the landscape, we are presented with a new view. That tree branch outside the kitchen window, those low storm clouds pressed into the valley, the unwavering distant mountain seen through Sun Tunnels. All views shift imperceptibly from moment to moment, though, presenting us with the illusion of a continual image. Whether we view the landscape while outside, see it through a window or through a concrete tunnel, we actively choose what to look at by employing a framing device – either our mind’s eye, or a physical object – to intensify the view and create focus.

Sun Tunnels (1973-1976), created by the American artist Nancy Holt in Utah’s northwest desert, is one of our internationally celebrated earthworks: it is our regional example of the continuing importance placed on the work of artists such as Holt, who, starting in the 1960s, sought to draw our attention to the natural environment as a venue for art by heightening the focused perception of the viewer. Recently, Holt’s vast oeuvre has been celebrated through exhibitions, monographs, articles, public talks, and conferences as a body of work that consistently and successfully brings our awareness to the act of seeing itself, while at the same time putting us in touch with basic natural elements–earth, sun, water, air, fire–in a variety of ways. The attention on perception itself has been a predominant theme guiding Holt’s work for over forty decades as she has explored the phenomenon of sight through a wide variety of artistic mediums.

An internationally touring exhibition featuring Holt’s work from 1966 to 1980 will be on display at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts from October 19, 2012 – January 20, 2013. Whitney Tassie, the museum’s new Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art, states: “Nancy Holt is an important American artist who has produced ambitious projects, coupling elementary forms with conceptual ideas, all over the world for past four decades. As Utahns, we are lucky to have her most well-known work, Sun Tunnels, permanently situated in our backyard in the Great Basin Desert. This long-overdue retrospective will connect this iconic local artwork to the artist’s greater body of work that is integral to a global contemporary art discourse but largely unknown here in Utah.”

Salt Lake City is the final destination for an exhibition that could be considered more of a mid-career retrospective, as Holt has actively created art since the show’s 1980 end date. Curator Alena J. Williams has overseen the exhibition from its start in New York City to Germany, then back to the United States with stops in several cities. Williams is also the editor of the publication Nancy Holt: Sightlines (University of California Press, 2011), a richly illustrated book with essays by Williams and others, as well as Holt’s own writings on her work. This book serves as a companion piece to the exhibition as well as a means to include and expand upon more recent works. Williams writes of her interest in Holt’s work through the artist’s “use of media – photography, film, audiotape, and video – which represented a crucial reframing of the way Land art and site-specific sculpture and installation works have traditionally been understood.” (Sightlines, 11.)

Williams presents an artistic narrative of Holt’s work, comprised of media from writing and concrete poetry to photography and video, from public and site-specific installations to earthworks. The exhibition is an excellent opportunity to see how Holt’s interest in vision and the perception of space and light come together. An early photographic work, Concrete Visions, |1| shot in 1967 at a New Jersey brick and concrete yard invites us to see through the holes in concrete blocks as the artist saw through them, and provides an early example of Holt’s framing devices through both materiality and perception. In 1972, Holt actively engaged with the landscape to create her work Views Through a Sand Dune in Narragansett Beach, Rhode Island.|2| Her intervention in the sand dune, placing a pipe within a chosen spot to give the viewer a specific vista from either side of the dune, continued her investigation of framing a view in the land. Holt is one of the first artists in this country to use film and video as artistic mediums. She and her husband, the American artist Robert Smithson (1938-1973) collaborated on a videotape East Coast/West Coast (1969) and a film Swamp (1971), works that draw us into dialogues as they take place between the artists, the first shot inside a Soho loft, the other in the tall reeds of a New Jersey swamp. In 1975, Holt created the 16-mm film Pine Barrens,|3| and wrote of her intention in making a film based upon this region of southern New Jersey: “…the landscape, as a whole, was very absorbing. I felt compelled to bring a sense of that place to other places. I figured I’d do this by filming various aspects of the land without a single person in it. In this way the landscape is no longer a mere backdrop for human activity; it begins to assert is own presence.” (Nancy Holt: Sightlines, 248.)

During this time Holt was not only filming the landscape in New Jersey but also in Utah, where she was working on Sun Tunnels. Included in the UMFA exhibition are “Preparatory drawing of Sun Tunnels” 1975 |4|and the photograph “Holt shooting the film Sun Tunnels” 1976.|5| Both drawing and photograph provide visitors with a glimpse into the artist’s working process, as she devoted years to securing the site, planning the work, collaborating with other individuals and organizations, and finally realizing both earthwork and film (the photograph was taken by her friend, the late Utah artist Lee Deffebach).

While Utahns feel a kinship to Sun Tunnels due to its geographical proximity, this singular work graces the cover of more than one art book. Images of the earthwork were on display this past summer in another exhibition, Nancy Holt: Photoworks, at Haunch of Venison, London. Organized by Ben Tufnell, director of exhibitions and author of Land Art(Tate Publishing, 2006), his goal was to introduce Holt’s photography and photographic interests to an international audience: “A central concern of Nancy Holt’s work is vision; the phenomena of sight, how we look and how we become conscious of our looking. Addressing this concern, the camera becomes a tool, a kind of prosthetic eye that allows her not only to record, but – in a conceptual leap – to record the act of seeing and recording.” (Nancy Holt: Photoworks, 5.)

In the midst of exhibition openings and talks, Holt created a new site-specific installation this summer on the campus of the University of Avignon in France. Avignon Locators 1972-2012, is the latest of Holt’s Locator works: the first outdoor Locator work, Missoula Ranch Locators: Vision Encompassed, was realized in 1972 in Montana. The work in Avignon is situated on a corner of the campus near the city’s medieval wall.|6| The views through the eight steel locators are aligned astronomically in N, NW, W, SW, S, SE, E, NE directions. Looking outward through a Locator the environment is encircled, looking inward through a Locator the opposite Locator is in view; a sculpture not only to be looked at, but through. Fixed in its site in Avignon by the North Star, Avignon Locators orients us in space and engenders an appreciation of this unique historical place on the planet. Since at the site the horizon is hidden by trees and buildings, the east and west Locators of Avignon Locators are not in an alignment with the sun on the horizon on the equinoxes. However, near the time of the equinoxes every year, optimally on September 16 at 7:25 PM local time and March 25 at 6:36 PM (and less optimally at the same times for two days before and after these dates) the sun is seen setting through the west Locator, leading some observers to call this phenomenon “Avignon Locatorhenge.” |7-8|

This interest in our place on the planet, how we are situated to the moon and the stars around us, has fascinated Holt for most of her artistic career. The phenomenon of sight, and how we perceive what is in front of us, can be viewed through this artist’s intention as a pinpoint of light or as the broad swath of Utah’s western desert. The heavens above us expand our reach beyond what we can see, but, through Holt’s vision, and her visionary work, we can appreciate the view, no matter where it takes us.


Nancy Holt: Sightlines opens at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts with an artist talk Thursday, October 18 at 6 pm. The exhibit continues through January 20. On October 20 at 6 pm the UMFA offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view Sun Tunnels (1973-1976) at sunset with the artist, Nancy Holt. There is no formal program. Please refer to www.umfa.utah.edu for directions, precautions, recommended attire and travel tips. On October 23 from 4-5:30 pm the University offers a screening of Nancy Holt’s short film, Sun Tunnels, which chronicles her creation of the famous earthwork in Utah’s desert, followed by a presentation by professors Hikmet Sidney Loe (Westminster College) and Paul Stout (University of Utah) on their reconstruction work on Sun Tunnels in 2010.

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